The Balfour Declaration Is Another Colonial Distortion of History


The 100-year anniversary of one of Great Britain’s great betrayals is approaching. Professor Stuart Rees explains.

At the beginning of November, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, an influential but highly deceitful historical document will be celebrated, certainly in Israel, probably in Australia.

In the United States and Australia, recent controversies over history have concerned attempts to reject past records, as in the destruction of monuments to defeated slave owners in the American civil war and in challenges to the alleged achievements of Captain Cook in Australia.

The 100-year-old false claims in the Balfour Declaration, which paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel, also need to be identified and rejected.


British Deception

Shop-Sparkke_Banner_300x250British deception of Arab interests began before Balfour’s initiative. In 1915-16, correspondence between British High Commissioner in Egypt Henry McMahon and Sherif Hussein of Mecca shows that official promises were made to Arab leaders, that after World War I, in exchange for their support in the British struggle against the Ottoman Turks, there would be independence of Palestine.

By November 2nd 1917, the deception inherent in policy became explicit. On that date, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, “His Majesty’s Government view[s]with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine….”

‘Clearly understood’ suggests that the British would insist on equal treatment for Indigenous Palestinians and the minority Jewish population. A year later, in an openly racist letter, Balfour wrote to his successor Lord Curzon, “Zionism is of profounder import than the desires and prejudices of 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit this ancient land.”

In the mandate system introduced by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Britain’s responsibility to administer Palestine came on the understanding that it would work on behalf of Jewish and Palestinian communities. Consistent with this understanding, in May 1939, the British government recommended a limit of 75,000 on further immigrants and an end to immigration by 1944 unless the resident Arabs of the region consented to further immigration.

This recommendation meant nothing. Two-faced responses by the British continued. In 2015, the Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson wrote that the Balfour Declaration was ‘bizarre’, ‘a tragically incoherent document’, ‘an exquisite piece of Foreign Office fudgerama.’ In mid-2017, on becoming foreign Secretary in Prime Minister Theresa May’s government, Johnson declared that Balfour’s letter reflected ‘a great tide of history.’


American and Australian Collusion

In a February 2017 letter to the New York Times, Roderick Balfour, a descendant of the former Foreign Secretary, identified the long-term consequences of the Balfour Declaration. He wrote, “The increasing inability of Israel to address the condition of the Palestinians coupled with the expansion into Arab territories of the Jewish settlements are major factors in the growing anti-Semitism around the world.”

This letter prompted the bombastic US lawyer Alan Dershowitz to trot out the intellectually lazy but standard retort that anyone who criticizes the policies of an Israeli government must be anti-Semitic. Dershowitz compounded his argument with half-truths about the content of the Balfour Declaration, “And let the Palestinians finally come to the bargaining table and recognize Israel as the National State of the Jewish People in the way that the Balfour Declaration intended.”

It has never been clear what Balfour intended, but if powerful people can promote their version of history, who cares?’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (IMAGE: The Jewish Agency for Israel, Flickr)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (IMAGE: The Jewish Agency for Israel, Flickr)

About the time that Roderick Balfour penned his letter to the New York Times, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was welcoming Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to Australia. Turnbull’s welcome included the claim that, “Australia and Israel have a relationship forged in the crucible of history”. This could mean that Captain’s Cook’s 1788 discovery of an ‘empty’ Australia corresponded to the Zionist claim in 1948 that Palestine was ‘a land without a people for a people without a land.’

As part of his welcome, Turnbull managed to associate the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade’s defeat of the Ottoman Turks at Beersheba as a foundation of the Australia/Israel relationship. The October 30th 1917 charge of a horse brigade contributed to the creation of the State of Israel? This beggars belief.

Turnbull insisted that Israel and Australia “share a commitment to freedom, democracy and the rule of law”. He announced that he’ll be celebrating the battle of Beersheba. No comment about Palestinians. No mention of justice. No reference to international law. No recognition of different laws for Israeli and Arab citizens of Israel, let alone any acknowledgement of inhumanities in the siege of Gaza.


Turnbull’s Objectives?

Given Malcolm Turnbull’s bad polling, a celebration of Beersheba and Balfour in Israel would be a convenient distraction. It would match the British Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent claim that she wanted the British people to be proud of the Balfour Declaration.

Independent journalist Robert Fisk asks, what is there to be proud of? He has described the Balfour Declaration as the most mendacious, deceitful and hypocritical document in British history.

Shop-Sparkke_Banner_300x250In pursuit of justice, the centenary of Balfour Declaration could be marked by long overdue adherence to the rules of international law. That task will take courage and is urgent. Millions of Palestinians are marooned in refugee camps. West Bank citizens have endured 50 years of military occupation. Palestinian homes are destroyed and replaced by thousands of new Israeli settlements.

In a macabre play, which should be titled ‘Cruelty Beyond Belief’, two million Gazans live under siege in life threatening conditions.

The Balfour misrepresentations and distortions must end. Only if history is properly understood could justice be attained. That outcome would be a cause for celebration.


Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees AM is a regular New Matilda contributor, an Australian academic and author who is the founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.